The basilica of San Benedetto had withstood the tests of time since the end of the 14th century.
But on Sunday, the church that paid homage to the patron saint of Europe, Saint Benedict, was reduced to a heap of rubble after a 6.6-magnitude earthquake ripped through the town of Norcia where it stood in the main square.
The basilica was considered one of the region’s most spiritually important sites. Now, only its medieval facade still stands, and centuries of work and other renovations to the interior, including a complete restructuring that was completed at the end of the 18th century, are gone.
News of the church’s destruction was confirmed in a four-word tweet sent by the monastery of San Benedetto, a Benedictine community in Norcia.
The monks escaped largely unscathed, in part because they had moved to a makeshift monastery about a mile from Norcia after the August earthquake in nearby Amatrice that killed nearly 300 people.
The monks released a statement on Sunday morning, saying they were all safe, and were searching for victims who might require last rites.
The statement, posted below an image of the ruined basilica, said: “May this image serve to illustrate the power of this earthquake, and the urgency we monks feel to seek out those who need the sacraments on this difficult day for Italy.”
The building contained a large painting, St Benedict and Totila, by Filippo Napoletano, which was completed in 1621, and another painting from the mid-1600s, Madonna and Norcia Saints, by the Roman painter Vincenzo Manetti.
The church was located on top of the ruins of a house that were said to be the birthplace of Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, and parts of the ancient Roman structure were still visible on the left side of the basilica. Some parts of the crypt walls contained opus reticulatum brickwork – a diamond-shaped style used in ancient Rome – while other walls contained traces of 14th-century frescoes, according to an Umbrian tourism website.
While the basilica was first constructed between 1290 and 1338, it was enlarged a few years later by the monks of Sant’Eutizio in Valcastoriana. A bell tower was erected in the 14th century but was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1703, and was then replaced by a smaller tower.
The town attracts pilgrims from all over the world who seek to honour Saint Benedict, seen in Catholicism as crucial to the founding of western civilisation, according to the Vatican journalist Edward Pentin.
The monks are likely to play a central role in the eventual rebuilding of Norcia and had begun an appeal on their website before Sunday’s quake. Norcia , a destination for food lovers, is known for its prosciutto, salami, cheese and wild boar.
The monks also put it on the map with their craft beer, which is called Birra Nursia, after the Latin name of the town, and is sold at local shops and hotels, as well as in the US through its website. The beer was reportedly served to cardinals during the papal conclave that elected Pope Francis.